My Last Duchess

My Last Duchess - Robert Browning

Critical Approaches: My Last Duchess

**Browning’s My Last Duchess ** is a masterpiece of aesthetic and rhetorical art. Despite, or because of our lack of information, we become bewildered but curious enough to continue reading.

Using a mixture of the Platonic distancing, combined with Aristotelian identifying, we remain sufficiently engaged to become involved cogitatively and emotionally.

Various critical theories ask different questions and produce different answers. The way we interpret a piece of literature depends on the perspective we come from and our social and moral values. Largely it is determined by the constructs or social, religious and cultural conditioning that have influenced our way of seeing the world and our way of thinking. The late 19^(th) C. gave rise to a slew of ideologies competing with each other. Variant readings complement – rather than contradict – one another. We look at Historical context, Formalistic, Feminist, Psychological and Marxist.

Historical, Biographical Context: My Last Duchess #

Robert Browning, 1812 – 1889, was largely home schooled. His father’s vast library of 6000 books and excellent tutoring fostered a well read and prolific poet from a young age.

One reviewer claims literature would not be impoverished if we lost Browning’s earliest works, maintaining his middle period from 1841 – 1869 was the most noteworthy. He was never successful enough to be financially independent.

His most masterful work, My Last Duchess, was published in 1842, aged 30. He travelled to Italy, impressed by their Renaissance love poetry.

In 1846, he falls in love with a invalid spinster aged 40, Elizabeth Barrett, when he came across her poetry. The pair exchanged nearly 600 letters over the following 20 months, and eloped. Barrett’s father opposed the marriage, and he never spoke with his daughter again.

They moved to Florence, Italy, where she published Sonnets From the Portuguese, a collection of 44 love sonnets one of the greatest sequences of sonnets in history dedicated to Browning and written in secret during their courtship. “Sonnet 43” begins with “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,* / I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight / For the ends of being and ideal grace. …*

Browning was painfully aware of our frustration and imperfection. *“Birds sing but frogs croak”. *The song may be perfect but the croak is more common. But we always reach for the unattainable. Our songs only approximate what we feel. “Our reach should exceed our grasp/ What else is heaven for”?

For the speaker, success lies in the endless growth and struggle towards perfection and not in its actual attainment. Does he associate perfection with stagnation and spiritual emptiness?

Browning looks within himself for evidence of God’s plan and nature. We can love with overwhelming devotion and passion. The feeling is irrational, but is as puzzling as the problem of evil. Where does either come from?

Browning held that *“Man in his capacity for love touches divinity”. * We could extrapolate that hate takes us in the opposite direction.

Doubt is inherent in us. * “A scientific faith’s absurd”. * Doubt therefore is an ingredient of faith.

We only damn ourselves by ignoring the promptings of love, even if one of them is married. Like Donne, he believes in the supremacy of love:

                                              *Let me get           

* Her for myself, and what’s the earth**With all its art, verse, music worth –* * Compared with love, found, gained and kept?*

Other techniques he appropriates from Donne include the voice of the speaker addressing us about the lady. We get to know a lot about the speaker; little about the lady.

At an early age Browning became concerned about the subjugation of women throughout history and especially in Victorian England. Pre-arranged marriages were common and wives were considered mere chattel and completely at the mercy of their husbands. Women were invisible with most writers like Jane Austen using pseudonyms to publish. Attitudes began to change during Victoria’s reign.

Browning’s themes include the historical tyranny of man over woman–the tyrannical suppression of one nature by another merely on the basis of gender, and not with respect to economic or social necessity.

The poem conveys a portrait of despotic Renaissance society, which, though it esteemed feminine beauty, invested power in ruthless rulers such as the Duke as effective and praiseworthy. We, come to comprehend the courtesy, dignity, artistic taste, and yet essential cold, calculating, callous, cruelty of a Renaissance autocrat.

I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

The magisterial sweep of the opening lines, as David Shaw contends, not only establishes the name of the master-painter who created this “wonder,” but implies the supervisory role of the artist’s “patron,” the Duke, in its creation, as is consistent with the role of the aristocratic patron in Renaissance Italy.

This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.

The Duke is modelled on Alfonso II, fifth Duke of Ferrara, and the last of the Este family which Browning had dealt with in Sordello; Alfonso II, born in 1533, married Lucrezia de Medici, then fourteen, in

  1. Four years after her death, under suspicious circumstances - likely poison, in 1561, Alfonso married the daughter of Ferdinand I, Count of Tyrol.

Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”. . . .

The Duke’s continually referring to his auditor as “sir” similarly implies the speaker’s feeling that the envoy shares his outlook and interpretation of the Duchess’s aberrant conduct, and will endorse the “commands” that the Duke ultimately felt he had to give. Regardless of what the envoy tells his master of this speech, the putative duchess will still have no part in the negotiations since Italian women of the sixteenth century were treated as chattels rather than legally independent entities.

Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design. . . .

In the Italian Renaissance, rulers such as Browning’s Duke employed subservient craftsmen–painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, and architects–whose work provides an historical account to us of those fierce and elegant despots who patronized them.

Textual Linguistic - New Criticism: My Last Duchess #

This assumes a close reading of the text to find a sense of meaning.

The possessive pronoun “my” and the liberal use of the nominative pronoun “I” throughout indicate a proud self centered man.

Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design. . . .

The Duke makes it very clear that Fra Padolf, a monk, is also under his command and merely “worked” rather than painted freely.

The Duke, in disingenuous civility, frames all his commands, as questions. Addressing the envoy as “Sir” was common then, “thou” and “thee” would have been more respectful. By sitting, the auditor is in a subservient position.

In sympathy with the observant painter of the poem, Browning invites us to suspend the moral judgments of others and judge for ourselves two studies of human nature, the one a portrait in pigments, the other his portrait in words.

In the Platonic tradition are both attracted and repelled by the speaker.

Glenn Everett, Associate Professor of English, University of Tennessee at Martin, questions how we read the Duke; sympathetically or with critical judgment.

Langbaum, the main proponent of this view, finds that the Duke’s immense attractiveness . . . his conviction of match less superiority, his intelligence, and bland amorality, his poise, his taste for art, his manners, overwhelm the envoy, causing him apparently to suspend judgment of the duke, for he raises no demur. The reader is no less overwhelmed. We suspend moral judgment because we prefer to participate in the duke’s power and freedom, in his hard core of character fiercely loyal to itself.

Hazard Adams points out that sympathy does not seem to be the right word for our relationship to the Duke, and Philip Drew protests that suspending our moral judgment should not require “an anaesthetizing of the moral sense for the duration of the poem” (28). Langbaum is right that the intellectual exercise of inferring the real character of the last Duchess from what the Duke says about her to the envoy and then going on to make a moral judgment about him constitutes a large part of our enjoyment of the poem, but that enjoyment is not dependent upon our entering into sympathy with the Duke.

Rather, we enter into this scene on the side of the envoy, and at that level we feel the pull of the Duke’s commanding rhetoric. In order to read the poem, we must create the scene in imagination, which means “losing ourselves” within it, forgetting, for the moment, our real, present surroundings in favor of active involvement in the dramatic situation.

Our entry is facilitated by its most striking feature, which is the way the Duke so directly addresses us. His narrative in the center of the poem is carefully framed by the first ten lines and the last ten, in which he addresses someone as “you.” Because we do not discover until after he has told his tale that this second person is in fact present in the poem, at the moment of our reading we can only assume that it is us to whom he is speaking. (It is true that we eventually discover that this “you” to whom he is speaking is an envoy from a Count, but this identification is not made until very late in the poem.) We are slightly disoriented, on a first reading, by that direct address, and we recognize that an effort is being made to suggest that we are the silent partner in a conversation; even the omission of quotation marks helps sustain the illusion that we have encountered a character who is speaking directly to us.

Trusting that our curiosity about what is going on in the poem will keep us reading despite our lack of information about the character of the auditor, Browning leaves us only one source for that information, the Duke’s monologue.

The Duke’s treatment of the envoy, becomes an example of dramatic irony for he unwittingly reveals his true personality to the Count’s representative. While outwardly civil and respectful in actual reality it is condescending and patronising. The fact the envoy is directed to sit, is usually a sign of subservience.

This is termed a “dramatic monologue” because it contains three formal elements: an occasion, a speaker, and a hearer. All its words are heard–and are intended to be heard–by an implied auditor – us and the envoy. The poet presents the character directly and ironically, without intrusive comment or judgement by the poet, yet we get to know a lot about the Duke from clues he drops incidentally, many self-incriminating.

That the Duke is frighteningly in control, as the perfect, deceptive iambic pentameter couplets assert.

The commanding “voice” or “persona” enables the poet to synthesize two types of verse, the lyric and the dramatic. The Duke responds negatively when the speaker assumes everything he says meets with the auditor’s approval.

The phrase “Last Duchess” might suggest more a comparative than an exclusive designation, as would “Late.” In his own eyes, there is no poem but only his words to the Count’s emissary.

But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I). . . .

The Duke keeps the full-length portrait covered because it reflects the poet’s sense of phrasing and timing, like a theatrical producer he wants to control the viewer’s response by timing the drawing of the curtain as part of his faultless performance as the gracious and cultured host.

A gentle “spot of joy” that the artist has captured in the Duchess’s cheek will remain undiminished when her imperious Duke, like the real lady herself, is dust and ashes.

The Duke implies that the envoy should apply his “history” or “object lesson” (the fate of the unruly former duchess) to the female “object” of the transaction. This is a proposal of marriage to an absent young girl who has no say in the matter, but it comes with dire warnings: respect my 900 year old name or you won’t last long.

This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.

This deliberate ambivalence shows the poet’s deliberately departing from historical truth. Browning in an interview once said, “I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death . . . Or he might have had her shut up in a convent."

There can be no doubt, her absence is sinisterly suspicious.

Nay, we’ll go

* Together down, sir.*

After directing the envoy to rise, does the Duke get the impression the envy may be trying to escape, or is he merely indicating his acceptance of the envoy’s status that he can go down the stairs together?

In the last part of the poem, the Duke shifts the discussion away from the portrait per se to the negotiations about to begin “below," presumably in a great hall or audience chamber. The diction, shifting from art to business, is now characterized by such words as *“gift,” “munificence,” “ample warrant,” “disallowed,” “company,” and–perhaps most significantly–“dowry.”

The Duke argues the rightness or justice of his “pretense,” which literally means “claim,” but is a double entendre implying also “act” and “deception.”

Thus, the Duke reveals that everything that has gone before is mere “elegant persiflage” (light banter), a private conversation, and that only now is the real dialogue of competing interests about to begin.

The Duke seems to suggest that money is not the issue, that he is determined to possess the Count’s daughter. Is there any indication the deal may fall through?

Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

The mention of the material would be unnecessary in a real conversation since the statue’s being bronze would be obvious to an observer; therefore, the phrase “cast in bronze” betrays the artificial and textual nature of this one-sided dialogue.

Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West. . . .

The rhymes, which are irrational satellites revolving round the rhetoric, imply that, for example, in the above couplet, the Duchess' “breast” has indeed become for the Duke a sinking sun. The Duchess, indicates the painter, valued the Duke’s “favour” since it occupies first place among her accessories in the portrait, but her painted her clear of those walls which must have been for her nothing but a prison.

Though the entire poem is tight and highly regular in iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets, it uses liberal enjambment; run-on sentences. The tight control belies the Duke’s lack of self- control. He reacts to any slight or undervaluing of his nine-hundred-year old heritage.

Psychological Reading of My Last Duchess #

How we view the Duke depends on our station in life. As an upper crust, we might identify; as the hoi polloi, we might judge him as proud, arrogant, condescending and cruel.

The five titles of the peerage, in descending order of precedence, or rank, are: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, baron.

This hierarchy of titles becomes further complicated by the fact that an individual peer can hold several peerages of different rank, created and conferred, or inherited, at different times over the centuries.

The precedence that any one peer has among those of his own degree (rank) is dependent upon the antiquity of the peerage in question. That is to say, the older the title, the more senior the title-bearer. His 900 year old name provides him the illusory entitlement to absolute privilege.

Browning creates what one critic has termed “psychography,” a text which serves to reveal the inner workings of a single character’s psychology, values, tastes, and motivations, mentally constructing a vivid portrait of a deeply disturbed and disturbing individual.

In matters artistic, the Duke has assumed a superior position; he, manifesting every outward sign of self-effacing civility as he and his guest are about to join the company, steps back to permit the Count’s emissary to accompany him as a social equal.

I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hand
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

The Duke was egotistically insensitive to the living beauty before him when the Duchess lived, and finds it a wonder only now that it has been transformed into a timeless, ageless beauty that only a work of art can contain.

She had
A heart–(how shall I say?)–too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace–all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.

By her enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life rather than just the expensive products of male ingenuity, the Duchess defined herself as a non-man, an independent spontaneous spirit.

In order to put at stop to such unrestrained enjoyment and counter his feelings of inadequacy and rejection, the Duke had to do what he asserts he will never do–mentally “stoop” to reprove and correct.

Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,

* Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!*

Since such statues as the one the Duke notes were hardly rare, the Duke ironically may be overvaluing the work which he is so proud of having commissioned. The statue of Neptune is a psychological projection of the Duke himself as both enjoy dominating what is beautiful, delicate, feminine, and natural. Like Neptune, the Duke needs to tame his wives.

Even had you skill

* In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”. . . .*

The Duke interprets the Duchess’s plain enjoyment as impudence and rebellion against her social superior, surrogate father, and master. What is most repulsive in the Duke’s manner here is the callous precision of an insane rationalist whose dissociation of logical forms suggests mild schizophrenia.

His specious claim at not having command of language is also spurious.

Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West. . . .

Her according the natural phenomenon, a common enough event, and the mark of his special grace equal status the Duke interpreted as a diminution of his assumed perfection; such notice would be for the Duke psychologically intolerable. He wanted total attention, domination aimed at psychic subjugation. You could form a view that he is a cold calculating psychopath in his need to monopolise his wives.

This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.

The poem has the salutary effect of making readers, particularly masculine readers, confront the Duke within themselves. Browning said that the Duke used his wife’s supposed shallowness as an excuse–mainly to himself–for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his absurdly pretentious vanity, by failing to recognize his superiority in even the most trifling matters.

* *

I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.

Browning’s psychopathic Duke finds satisfaction only in manipulating and controlling others, the outward and visible signs of his imposing his will being wealth and what wealth enables him to purchase.

* *

Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design. . . .

In sympathy with the observant painter of the poem, Browning invites us to suspend the moral judgments of others and judge for ourselves two studies of human nature, the one a portrait in pigments, the other a portrait in words.

Feminist Readings: My Last Duchess #

We hear only one voice–and as is typical of pre-twentieth-century verse that voice is male. The “voice” or “persona” talks about and describes a woman, but never actually quotes that woman. The character is presented directly and ironically, without comment by the poet.

Browning’s Duke speaks in noble poetry through which the reader rejects the behaviour of the speaker in favour of the behaviour of the woman who opposed him.

The phrase “Last Duchess” as opposed to “Late Duchess” might suggest more a comparative than an exclusive designation, as would “Late.” but reflects the woman was, ultimately, more a public “Duchess” than a private “wife.” – a trophy bride. She married at 14 and died four years later at 18.

The portrait of the last duchess is a symbol of compliance in marriage, which the Duke intimates to the envoy is what he expects from the Count’s daughter.

While the real woman inconveniently took pleasure in things other than the Duke, the mechanically reproduced, realistic picture of a photogenic woman is a suitable trophy for a dilettante in that it is a distillation of only her beauty.

The Duke keeps the full-length portrait covered because like a jealous and emotionally insecure child, he wants to show complete possession of the Duchess’s smile.

I call

That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands

* Worked busily a day, and there she stands.*

The magisterial sweep of the opening lines, as David Shaw contends, demonstrates that only “now,” after a passage of time, the Duke has forgotten the woman he had to dispose of and is free to admire the virtuosity of the (male) painter who has transcribed that woman’s chief commodity, her beauty, in a less threatening form.

The Duke interprets the Duchess’s plain enjoyment of other people and ordinary things as impudence and rebellion against her social superior, surrogate father, and master.

What is most repulsive in the Duke’s manner here is the callous precision of an insane rationalist whose dissociation of logical forms suggests mild schizophrenia.

The “voice” or “persona” in the poem My Last Duchess creates what one critic has termed “psychography,” a text which serves to reveal the inner workings of a single character’s psychology, values, tastes, and motivations.

Browning’s Duke speaks in noble poetry through which the reader mentally constructs a vivid portrait of a deeply disturbed and disturbing individual.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive.

The Duke intends to flatter the Count’s envoy by giving him the privilege of beholding what he regards as an extraordinarily beautiful work of art.

Browning’s theme is the historical tyranny of man over woman–the tyrannical suppression of one nature by another merely on the basis of gender, and not with respect to economic or social necessity

The Duke was egotistically insensitive to the living beauty before him when the Duchess lived, and finds it a wonder only now that it has been transformed into a timeless, ageless beauty that only a work of art can contain.

Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West. . . .

Her according the natural phenomenon, a common enough event, and the mark of his special grace equal status the Duke interpreted as a diminution of his assumed perfection; such notice would be for the Duke psychologically intolerable.

In matters artistic, the Duke has assumed a superior position; he, manifesting every outward sign of self-effacing civility as he and his guest are about to join the company, steps back to permit the Count’s emissary to accompany him as a social equal.

While the real woman inconveniently took pleasure in things other than the Duke, the mechanically reproduced, realistic picture of a photogenic woman is a suitable trophy for a dilettante in that it is a distillation of only her beauty.

Notice Neptune, though,

* Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!*

The statue of Neptune is a psychological projection of the Duke himself as both enjoy dominating what is beautiful, delicate, feminine, and natural.

She had

* A heart–(how shall I say?)–too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace–all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.*

In order to put at stop to such unrestrained enjoyment and counter his feelings of inadequacy and rejection, the Duke had to do what he asserts he will never do–mentally “stoop” to reprove and correct.

I call

That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hand

* Worked busily a day, and there she stands.*

While the real woman inconveniently took pleasure in things other than the Duke, the mechanically reproduced, realistic picture of a photogenic woman is a suitable trophy for a dilettante in that it is a distillation of only her beauty.

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

* The curtain I have drawn for you, but I). . . .*

The Duke keeps the full-length portrait covered because he believes he is revealing his taste when in fact he is revealing the traditional masculine pathology that requires a man’s wife be entirely subservient to his will.

I choose

* Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.*

Browning’s theme is the historical tyranny of man over woman–the tyrannical suppression of one nature by another merely on the basis of gender, and not with respect to economic or social necessity.

*Sir, ‘twas all one! My favour at her breast, *

* The dropping of the daylight in the West. . . .*

For the Duke, exposing the Duchess’s lack of discernment is the equivalent of exposing himself as one who could not master her; and that mastery, never realized while she lived, asserts itself by his manipulation of a cord that draws curtains–ironically, scarcely satisfying “control.”

This grew; I gave commands;

* Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.*

The poem has the salutary effect of making readers, particularly masculine readers, confront the Duke within themselves.

Marxist: My Last Duchess #

The monologue’s characterizing arranged marriages among the governing classes of the Renaissance as nothing more than business transactions which commodified beauty.

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

* The curtain I have drawn for you, but I). . . .*

The Duke keeps the full-length portrait covered because he likes to use it as an object lesson to enforce in others a view of him that obliges them to respect and fear him.

I call

* That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.*

The magisterial sweep of the opening lines, as David Shaw contends, establishes from the outset that the Duke appreciates objects of art more than he does the rights of others because the art has tangible, “monetary” value.

In the last part of the poem, the Duke shifts the discussion away from the portrait per se to the negotiations about to begin “below,” presumably in a great hall or audience chamber. The diction, shifting from art to business, is now characterized by such words as “gift,” “munificence,” “ample warrant,” “disallowed,” “company,” and–perhaps most significantly–“dowry."

Thus, the Duke implies that the envoy should apply his “history” or “object lesson” (the fate of the unruly former duchess) to the female “object” of the transaction. In alluding to his wealth, nobility, power, and impeccable taste earlier, the Duke was emphasizing what currency he would be bringing to the bargaining table.

Is there any indication, that after what he has heard, the envoy might advise his Count to reject the match?

Notice Neptune, though,

* Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!*

The value of a commodity is in direct proportion to its scarcity and desirability; to make the Duchess more valuable, the Duke had her commodified, made into a painting by a certified “Master” to which only the Duke himself controls the access.

I choose

* Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.*

Browning’s Duke is a soulless virtuoso, the natural product of a corrupt class system that empowers a proud, arrogant, and exclusive aristocracy.

Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design. . . .

In repeating the name of the artist three times, the Duke implies vaguely that the genius exhibited in the painting is somehow his, and that the choice of artist is itself a higher creative act since the painting was done under his strict supervision–for, after all, Frà Pandolf’s proletarian hands did not actually “paint,” they merely “worked.

Much of the above is appropriated from:

A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, Fifth Edition, Wilfred Guerin, et al, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Applying Modern Critical Theory to **Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario